Defense Media Network

U.S. Coast Guard Sinks Drifting Japanese “Ghost Ship”

After drifting for more than a year, Ryou-Un Maru is sunk as a hazard to navigation

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The U.S. Coast Guard sank a derelict fishing vessel in the Gulf of Alaska on April 5 because it was a hazard to navigation. There had been no one aboard the Ryou-Un Maru since it was carried away from port during the Japanese earthquake and tsunami more than a year ago.

The Canadian Coast Guard sighted the Ryou-Un Maru on March 23 drifting in Canadian waters. As the world became aware of the abandoned hulk and its lonely voyage across the Pacific, it became known as the “ghost ship.”

The ship was located by the Canadian Coast Guard 120 miles off Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada. The U.S. Coast Guard continued tracking the 164-foot fishing vessel as it drifted into U.S. waters in the Gulf of Alaska, traveling at about 1 knot toward the North American coast.

Just before taking Ryou-Un Maru under fire, the 62-foot Canadian fishing vessel Bernice C arrived, claiming salvage rights over the derelict ship in international waters and attempting to tow it to port.

“The master initially expressed an interest in salvaging the derelict vessel, but once on scene determined it was not safe to salvage or tow the vessel and they left the area,” a Coast Guard statement reported.

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Anacapa (WPB 1335) sank the Ryou-Un Maru 180 miles west of Sitka on the southeast Alaskan coast at 6:15 p.m. in water 6,000 feet deep on April 5, 2012. Anacapa, a 110-foot patrol cutter based in Petersburg, Alaska, took advantage of the opportunity to conduct a live-fire gunnery exercise, and sank the fishing boat using multiple rounds of 25 mm explosive ammunition.

USCGC Anacapa puts out fires caused by its 25 mm cannon fire, and fills the hull with water to sink the derelict Japanese fishing vessel Ryou-Un Maru. The fishing boat had drifted to a point more than 125 miles from Forrester Island in southeast Alaska, where it entered U.S. waters March 31, 2012. The vessel had been adrift since it was launched by a tsunami caused by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Japan last year. U.S. Coast Guard photo

Flames erupted on Ryou-Un Maru after being fired upon by Anacapa. Although the patrol boat fired as many as 100-plus rounds, the fishing boat remained afloat for several hours.

The 110-foot cutter then came alongside the fishing boat and used fire hoses to extinguish the flames and fill the now-holed ship with water to hasten the Ryou-Un Maru’s sinking.

“For the safety of mariners, sinking the vessel was the quickest way to properly address the danger this unattended vessel posed,” said Capt. Daniel Travers, Coast Guard District 17 incident manager. “The Anacapa crew did an outstanding job safely completing their mission.”

Both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency studied the problem and evaluated the options regarding disposal of the hulk. The best decision was to to sink the ship out to sea and let the fuel evaporate on the open water.

“I support the Coast Guard’s decision to sink the tsunami ghost ship as a threat to navigation. We can neither let this abandoned vessel drift freely amidst the shipping lanes off Sitka, nor can we allow it to become shipwrecked along the coastline of Alaska,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. “Having been written off by its Japanese owner and now a Canadian salvage interest, and no responsibility party to assume the expense, I don’t want the American taxpayer to foot the bill or Alaskans to clean up the mess.”

A Coast Guard C-130 Hercules was flying over the area monitoring the operation and was available to warn any nearby ships that might get too close to stay clear.

The shrimping trawler reportedly was in port in Hokkaido and about to be scrapped when the tsunami took it out to sea on March 11, 2010. Coast Guard officials said it probably had very little fuel still on board since it was riding so high in the water.

After the sinking, the Coast Guard said, “Light sheening and minimal debris have been reported from the sinking of the vessel, and the sheening is expected to quickly dissipate at sea.”

An estimated 5 million tons of debris were washed out to sea after the earthquake and tsunami. While most of it sank to the bottom, officials say there may be more ghost ships.

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Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...